Tag: trade

Distilling the Trade Policy Signal from the Protectionist Noise

It is not surprising that so many Americans believe President Trump has spent the past year erecting tariff walls around the United States. From Trump’s bombastic, anti-trade rhetoric to media’s and social media’s conflation of that rhetoric with real protectionist actions, hardly a day has passed without publication of an analysis or editorial about how especially protectionist this administration has been. The facts are quite different.

Despite promising 45 percent duties on imports from China, 35 percent duties on re-imports from Mexico, tighter restrictions to limit access to U.S. government procurement markets to U.S. firms and workers, requirements that oil pipeline builders use only American-made steel, and more, the Trump administration has not undertaken any of those actions. There has been no discretionary protectionism imposed by President Trump. None. Not yet anyway.

Certainly, President Trump’s instincts are protectionist. He’s already inflicted incalculable damage by withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, playing loose with his aggrandized sense of U.S. indispensability to the trading system, and deliberately throwing sand in the gears of the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body. His view of trade as a zero-sum contest played between national monoliths (i.e., Team America vs. Team China), where winning means achieving a trade surplus by way of policies that maximize exports and minimize imports, certainly provides fertile ground for protectionism to take root and flourish. But when it comes to actually imposing tariffs or other trade restrictions, so far Trump has been remarkably circumspect. Why?

First of all, the president’s trade policy actions are constrained legally, politically, and practically. The U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not the president, authority to regulate foreign trade. However, at various points and for various reasons over the past century, Congress delegated—through legislation that became statute—some of its authority to the president. For example, the president can impose tariffs without need of congressional action or consent under several different laws.

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Trump’s Unfair Deals?
A Free-Trade Parable

As Dan noted, President Trump has been in Asia, making a state visit to China and then meeting with foreign leaders at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam. As part of the trip, and perhaps in an effort to recapture his populist mojo amidst cratering job approval numbers back home, he has remounted one of his favorite hobby horses: decrying “unfair trade deals” that he says put America at a disadvantage with its trading partners.

The president does make oblique references to barriers that other countries place on American products entering their markets. But his comments suggest his biggest concern is the large trade deficits the United States has with some countries. According to Trump, those deficits are all the proof necessary that America is being snookered, and that current trade arrangements should be dissolved and renegotiated.

“The United States really has to change its policies because they’ve gotten so far behind on trade with China and, frankly, with many other countries,” he said in a press conference with President Xi in China. “The current trade imbalance is not acceptable,” he told reporters in Vietnam, adding: “I do not blame China or any other country, of which there are many, for taking advantage of the United States on trade. If their representatives are able to get away with it, they are just doing their jobs. I wish previous administrations in my country saw what was happening and did something about it. They did not, but I will.”

But if a trade deficit—especially a large, persistent one—is proof positive of unfair dealing, then Trump has some things to discuss with U.S. authorities about his own business empire, the Trump Organization.

Consider the tenants in his office, retail, and condo complexes, the lodgers at his hotels, and the players on his golf courses. They spend hundreds of dollars a day and thousands or millions of dollars a year on Trump products. Yet it’s highly doubtful that the Trump Organization simultaneously purchases hundreds of dollars a day or thousands and millions of dollars a year in goods from those same customers. Those customers thus have huge trade deficits with the president and his businesses. By his own logic, the Trump Organization must be treating those customers unfairly.

But wait, the president might protest, that’s not right—his businesses may not buy things from his customers, but the Trump Organization buys things from other businesses, and those businesses buy from other businesses, and sooner or later the money winds its way back to his customers.

But people in foreign countries likewise use American dollars to buy things from other countries, and invest in other countries, and some of that money winds its way back to the United States, too. Besides, even if China were to keep every U.S. dollar it receives and tuck them all away in some giant mattress, that would hardly reduce the number of dollars the United States can spend on domestic goods—after all, we own printing presses! Meanwhile, as all those dollars whirl around or get tucked away, the United States receives more and more Chinese goods—goods that we value more than the dollars we exchange to purchase them.

Unfortunately, the president ascribes to a very simplistic—and wrong—understanding of trade. The next time he launches in on the horrors of U.S. trade deficits, I hope someone asks him if there’s also a problem with the imbalanced trade the Trump Organization has with its customers. 

Did Xi School Trump in the Art of the Deal?

President Trump seems to be feeling pretty good about himself right about now. He and Mrs. Trump were accorded the highest honors and warmest welcome in China. His hosts attended to every last detail of the visit to ensure the U.S. president had the opportunity to bask in his importance and appreciate just how highly regarded he is by China’s leadership and people. Then, in a gesture of deference to Trump’s business acumen, negotiating savvy, and commitment to results, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the president a bill of business in the neighborhood of $250 billion—a pretty good haul by most standards.

In return, Trump lavished praise on Xi, expressing gratitude for his hospitality, admiration for his stewardship of Chinese society, and apologies for mistakenly blaming Beijing’s trade policies for the bilateral trade imbalance when the real culprit, after all, has been U.S. policies and previous administrations that let the relationship “get off kilter”: 

Our meeting this morning, in front of your representatives and my representatives, was excellent, discussing North Korea – and I do believe there’s a solution to that, as you do; discussing trade with the United States, knowing that the United States really has to change its policies because they’ve gotten so far behind on trade with China and, frankly, with many other countries.

And I have great respect for you for that, because you’re representing China. But it’s too bad that past administrations allowed it go get so far out of kilter. But we’ll make it fair, and it will be tremendous for both of us.

My feeling toward you is an incredibly warm one. As we said, there’s great chemistry, and I think we’re going to do tremendous things for both China and for the United States. And it is a very, very great honor to be with you. Thank you very much.

The hosting of the military parade this morning was magnificent, and the world was watching. I’ve already had people calling from all parts of the world. They were all watching. Nothing you can see is so beautiful.

So I just want to thank you for the very warm welcome, and I look forward to many years of success and friendship, working together to solve not only our problems but world problems, and problems of great danger and security. I believe we can solve almost all of them and probably all of them.

There is something to be said about the importance of good rapport between world leaders, but perhaps of much greater value is understanding the Chinese faculty for making flattery an art form.

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Your Guide to the NAFTA Renegotiation

The North American Free Trade Agreement has been a source of controversy since well before its implementation in 1994.  It was the first trade agreement involving the United States and a “developing” country, so it raised concerns that a giant sucking sound from south of the border would hoover up U.S. investment and jobs.  Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and most Democratic presidential candidates beginning with John Kerry all lamented the imminent or unfolding devastation wrought by NAFTA.

Even though the U.S. manufacturing sector has continued to attract more investment than every other countries’ manufacturing sectors ever since NAFTA was implemented, and even though that implementation did not accelerate the trend of U.S. manufacturing job decline, which had been underway for 14 years since employment peaked at 19.4 million in 1979 (2.6 million decline between 1979 and 1993; 2.7 million decline between 1993 and 2007; 600,000 increase between 1993 and 1999), NAFTA became a symbol of corporate excess and a rallying cry for organized labor, environmental organizations, and other anti-business groups over the years.  It also made it nearly impossible for Democrats in Congress to support trade liberalization in the ensuing decades.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Democratic candidates John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama all vowed to re-open NAFTA to make it less unfair for U.S. workers.  Within a few weeks of assuming office, President Obama let the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada know that he wasn’t about to follow through on his NAFTA pledges and risk disrupting North American production and supply chains that have enabled regional producers to compete more effectively against Asian and European rivals, while delivering better goods and services at more affordable prices to consumers.

Probably owing to the anti-trade agreement fervor that brewed during the debates over Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership over the last few years, killing NAFTA (and the TPP) became a central plank in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Although, regrettably, he withdrew the United States from the TPP, Trump seems to have been talked off the ledge about jettisoning NAFTA , which (as of this morning) is being renegotiated.

As a guide to better understanding what’s on the table and what’s at stake, my colleagues Simon Lester, Inu Manak, and I produced this working paper: Negotiating NAFTA in the Era of Trump: Keeping the Trade Liberalization In and the Protectionism Out.

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Foxconn’s Savvy Investment: Hedging against an Emerging Trade War

“Designed by Apple in California; Assembled in China” are the words engraved on the back of Apple’s ubiquitous iPods, iPads, and iPhones.  Might that soon change? 

Foxconn, the Taiwan-headquartered company that does Apple’s assembling in China, announced last week that it will invest up to $10 billion in production facilities in Wisconsin. That sounds like something to cheer. After all, investment is essential to economic growth and foreign direct investment tends to nourish the domestic commercial eco-system by bringing in companies with new ideas and better ways of doing things.

But Foxconn is in the business of contract manufacturing—producing, but mostly assembling, electronics products branded and owned by other companies. It’s not a high value-added operation requiring high-skilled workers. It’s the kind of supply chain operation better suited to economies with an abundance of low-skilled workers willing to work for much lower wages than Wisconsin’s work force expects to earn. Then again, economic considerations aren’t the only determinants of investment decisions.

Back in 2011 at a dinner in Silicon Valley, President Barack Obama asked Apple’s founder and CEO Steve Jobs why all of the production and assembly of the company’s products couldn’t be done in the United States. Jobs was a bit dismissive, responding that those kinds of jobs weren’t coming back. 

But the message wasn’t lost on other business executives, including GE’s Jeff Immelt, who was quick to announce repatriation of some operations that had recently been outsourced to China. The president was in a political jam and his reelection efforts might benefit if he were to show that U.S. companies were reshoring and bringing those manufacturing jobs back stateside.

Trade Statistics Are a Source of Great Mischief

Following is my response to the Commerce Department’s request for public comments on the “Causes of Significant Trade Deficits.”

In a globalized economy, where the value embedded in most manufactured goods originates in multiple countries and two-thirds of trade flows are intermediate goods, bilateral trade accounting is meaningless.  In a world where statistical agencies attribute the entire $180 cost of producing an Apple iPhone to China, where it is merely assembled for a cost of about $6, what do trade statistics and trade balances mean?   By assigning 100 percent of the value of an import to the final country on the assembly line, trade statistics have lost most of their meaning.

The misguided belief that the trade account is a scoreboard measuring the success or failure of trade policy explains much of the public’s skepticism about trade and trade agreements, lends plausibility to claims that the United States is routinely outsmarted by shrewder foreign trade negotiators, and provides cover for the same, recycled mercantilist and protectionist arguments that have persisted without merit for centuries.

If the trade deficit reduces economic activity and destroys jobs, why are there positive relationships between these variables?  The overall trade deficit, by and large, is also a meaningless statistic.  It is neither a barometer of economic health nor a running tally of debt with which we are burdening future generations.

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U.S.-China Trade Deal Trumps U.S.-China Trade War

Amid increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing over economic and security matters, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Florida today and tomorrow for meetings with President Trump.  Although economic frictions between the world’s two largest economies are nothing new, the safeguards that have helped prevent those frictions from sparking an explosion and plunging the relationship into the protectionist abyss may no longer be reliable.

As I noted in this recent Cato Free Trade Bulletin: 

Never have the U.S. and Chinese economies been more interdependent than they are today. Never has the value of the bilateral trade and investment relationship been greater. Never has the precarious state of the global economy required comity between the United States and China more than it does now. Yet, with Donald J. Trump ascending to power on a platform of nationalism and protectionism, never have the stars been so perfectly aligned for the relationship to descend into a devastating trade war.

What are those safeguards and why might they no longer be reliable?

First, U.S. multinational business interests that used to favor treading lightly with China, and provided a policy counterweight to U.S. import-competing industries advocating protectionism, have grown disillusioned by the persistence of policies that continue to impede their success in Chinese markets. Many think a more aggressive posture from Washington, even if that makes matters worse for them in the short run, is overdue.

Second, the pro-China-trade lobbies in Washington have grown sheepish in their advocacy on account of an economic study that went viral last year, ascribing massive U.S. jobs losses to trade with China, and because many fear political retribution from challenging Trump’s assumptions.  Full-throated support for the relationship has become conditional support.

Third, now more than ever before, U.S. policymakers, media, and the public are less inclined to look at the bilateral economic relationship in isolation from the strategic and geopolitical aspects of the relationship.  Segregating the issues in the past allowed us to focus on the win-win elements of trade, where there was broad enough agreement that mutual benefits could be derived, without being distracted by the issues where the United States and China are less likely to agree.  Today, our economic frictions are viewed through the prism of our geopolitical differences – and that makes trade disputes more difficult to manage.

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